Connecting to a higher power provides strength, solace. Cancer treatment stresses the body physically and mentally. But regardless of the type of cancer, one form of alternative medicine that seems to help is spirituality.
Studies show that regardless of someone’s religious orientation, spirituality may still play a role in helping that patient cope with cancer treatment. “An agnostic or atheist could be ‘spiritual’that is, have a reverence for life and a deep appreciation for the suffering of others,” says Michael Stefanek, PhD, director of the Behavioral Research Center of the American Cancer Society. “The term ‘spirituality’ attempts to catch these beliefs and attitudes.”
Spirituality and Cancer Treatment: How Does It Help?
Just how spirituality helps with cancer treatment is unknown, but Dr. Stefanek offers some ideas.
“Prayer, saying the rosary, and other behaviors can be comforting, as [can] many secular rituals, such as a regular stroll in the park. They can also serve a distracting purpose away from the worries of the illness,” says Stefanek. “Prayer and meditation may also serve a relaxing function, at which time our bodies may slow down, blood pressure may drop, heart rate decreases, and muscle tension decreases,”all physiological effects potentially healthy for us.”
Spirituality also may decrease anxiety, anger, and discomfort and increase feelings of hope and optimism. It may even help a patient live longer.
Spirituality and Cancer Treatment: Judith’s Story
As a busy public relations executive in New York City, Judith Feder didn’t have time for cancer. But when she was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer and a poor long-term outlook a few years ago, she had little choice but to confront it head on.
A devout Jew who attended synagogue, Feder found her faith tested. “The first time I cried was when I went to my synagogue to see my son in a program a couple of days after my diagnosis,” she says. “My mother had told my rabbi about the situation, and he approached me. I was very concerned for my son, who was 7 at the time, and it all came to a head that morning.”
Feder went into “action mode.” Besides the intensive cancer treatment she received, she relied on spirituality to see her through. “If anything, I became more spiritually active,” she says. "Not only in terms of mainstream religion, but I began to explore Buddhism and various forms of meditation, especially tai chi and yoga.” Feder uses alternative practices like meditation every day and attends synagogue regularly, paying attention to prayers of health and healing.
Today, years after her initial diagnosis, Feder thanks her faith and spirituality for keeping her alive. “I can’t prove the physical benefits, but I think they are clear,” she says. “I have beat the odds in terms of surviving my diagnosis. I have maintained a mostly excellent quality of life despite the extent of my cancer and years of toxic treatments.”
Spirituality and Cancer Treatment: Ways to Get Started
To help you or a loved one get the most from spirituality during their cancer treatment:
• Rely on a chaplain. Most hospitals and medical centers employ chaplains and professionals who are specifically trained to help you cope with the spiritual difficulties of diagnosis and cancer treatment. That’s why it’s best to start on your spiritual journey with someone well-qualified to guide you down that path, says Mary Johnson, MD, a board-certified chaplain and assistant professor of oncology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. “Our relationship is predicated on the patient’s need,” she says. “It’s a very customized ministry.”
• Embrace your own support group. Your relationships with friends, family, and clergy members from your own church or place of worship are vital. If people have their own strong relationships, chaplains serve a complementary role. But sometimes it does help to have an additional person, outside of the immediate family, be involved in the healing process. “Family dynamics don’t change, and when a person gets sick, it can often challenge those relationships,” Dr. Johnson says.
• Get into a routine. Stefanek says that creating a routine for your spiritual practices can help when dealing with cancer treatment. For more secular relaxation therapies, experts recommend patients practice every day at a set time. “If done regularly, it can serve a ritual function to help relieve stress.”
• Ask yourself the tough questions. If you can’t decide whether you need help, ask yourself the following questions:
What are my hopes?
What are my concerns?
How is my soul today?
How peaceful am I?
Johnson says if any of your answers seem disturbing or cause anxiety, it might be a good idea to talk to someone about your feelings.
• Be realistic. A strong belief and practice of spirituality can certainly help your mind as you cope with cancer treatment, but it’s unlikely to change the outcome. That’s why Johnson says patients should come to grips with this reality and reach a peace about it. “One of the biggest problems we see is spiritual distress; when what people believe isn’t helping right now,” she says. “If we can help them come to terms with this and be at peace, then we’ve done our jobs.”
Whatever your own belief or prescribed cancer treatment may be, spirituality may be an appropriate form of alternative medicine to help you cope with this life-altering experience.